Sentencing Reform: Early Release, Mandatory Minimums & Life Without Parole

Justice Fellowship supports reforming mandatory minimum laws to eliminate arbitrary disparities and unfair sentences. One huge battle was won when President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, reducing the previous 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and rolling back a mandatory minimum law for the first time in 40 years.

Now, the time is once again ripe for sentencing reform and we need your help!

The Smarter Sentencing Act (SB1410/HR3382) will advance more effective and proportionate criminal sentencing for non-violent drug offenses.  The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Senators Mike Lee (R-ID) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representatives Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) is gaining momentum. On January 30th, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed this legislation with broad support, from Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Please ask your federal legislators to support the Smarter Sentencing Act now so we can advance this critical reform! 

Sentences that don't make sense

In the last several decades, prison sentences have become an increasingly central component of our criminal justice system. Tough-on-crime policies have produced mandatory minimum laws and three-strikes laws, which increase the use of prison and the length of prison sentences for minor offenses. Truth in sentencing laws require longer stays in prison before inmates’ good behavior can warrant review of their case. Today, one out of every 100 Americans lives behind bars, and the statistics are even worse for minorities.

Sentencing practices that rely excessively or exclusively on incarceration harm our communities and sap government funds. Prisons are appropriate for many violent offenders. However, prison is not always the best way to make us safe – indeed, there is only a limited and diminishing relationship between incarceration and reduced crime rates. Rather than encouraging criminals to become peaceful, productive citizens, prison culture often has the opposite effect, operating as a graduate school for crime. Mandatory minimum and three strikes laws eliminate judicial discretion, and instead place sentencing authority almost entirely in the hands of prosecutors. Sentencing people to longer prison terms more frequently is also a significant cost. Many states are staggering under the financial weight of their growing prison populations, in some cases spending more on their corrections system than on higher education. The true cost of harsh sentencing practices is felt, though, when our criminal justice system tears communities apart by unnecessarily locking up their mothers, their fathers, and their employees.

Justice Fellowship calls for sentencing systems that promote justice and protect safety.

All states should establish sentencing commissions to review sentencing practices and their effects on public safety. The U.S. Sentencing Commission and existing state commissions should reform their sentencing guidelines to be clear, consistent, and proportionate to the gravity of offense. Congress and state legislatures should eliminate mandatory minimums that disrupt sentencing guidelines and harshly punish minor offenses. Three strikes laws should be abolished. Good time credit opportunities should be increased and truth in sentencing laws should be reformed to reduce the time an offender must be in prison before he or she is eligible for parole. In addition, courts should employ alternative sentences that focus on rehabilitation and restitution in place of incarceration. These things have an impressive record of changing offenders’ lives. Adopting these smarter responses to crime will make our communities safer and healthier in the most cost-efficient way.


Studies & Reports

Tuesday, January 1, 2008
The Pew Center on the States
Thursday, January 24, 2013
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
The Council for State Governments Justice Center - Law Enforcement
Sunday, November 10, 2013
San Jose Mercury News
Sunday, November 10, 2013
San Jose Mercury News
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Pew Trusts Center on the States
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Congressional Research Service


American Bar Association and National Institute of Justice
The PEW Public Safety Performance Project
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